BARGES HALTEDJun 24th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: top story
Coast Guard temporarily sidelines vacuum barges amid safety concerns
U.S. Coast Guard officials approached a group of vacuum barges June 16 that were removing oil near Barataria Bay on the Westbank of Plaquemines, and ordered the vessels back to dock, citing safety concerns and improper certification documents.
The vacuum barges sat inactive until the next day, while Coast Guard officials ensured the vessels carried proper safety equipment.
According to a press release posted by the Coast Guard June 17, the agency removed the barges from service because of concerns over “stability and the lack of lifesaving and firefighting equipment.”
After a thorough inspection of the barges, Coast Guard leaders said in the press release they were “satisfied that all concerns have been addressed and the vessels are safe for all crew members aboard.”
Capt. Roger Laferriere, the Coast Guard Incident Commander in Houma, said in part, “Fighting the oil is our priority. However, we will never compromise the safety of all the men and women working so hard out in the field.”
State and local leaders, though, decried the action as another indicator of the Coast Guard and British Petroleum’s lack of urgency with regard to oil prevention and cleanup.
“We’re disgusted that once again, instead of helping, the Coast Guard is throwing up a road block,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said. “I thought I heard the president say we were at war. Would you shut down tanks to check for fire extinguishers if you were being shot at?”
Nungesser said some Plaquemines residents were so frustrated by the Coast Guard’s actions they went back out to Bay Jimmy and began to clean up the oil with their own personal shop vacuums. According to the parish, the team filled three barrels with thick oil within 15 minutes while using the shop vacuums.
Governor Bobby Jindal also weighed in on the vacuum barge shutdown, which lasted about 24 hours.
“The Coast Guard is the agency that [originally] approved all of these vacuum barges to be deployed into the marsh,” Jindal said. “It is not only frustrating that they later decided to take them offline and inspect them, it cost us more than 24 hours in our fight against the heavy oil we saw sitting around these barges, hurting our fragile marsh.
“We are in a war to save our coast from this oil and we need the federal government to join with us in this fight to protect our way of life.”
Jindal urged streamlining of the deployment process and called on the Coast Guard to display more of a sense of urgency in the oil cleanup efforts.
Most vacuum barges received the go ahead to return to work by June 17, but soon two more vacuum barges were halted amid safety concerns, the parish reported. After local officials made contact with the White House, though, the White House indicated that, from now on, the Coast Guard can only make safety recommendations to cleanup vessels. The Coast Guard cannot interfere with cleanup operations, according to a press release from the parish.
Within hours, the two barges went back to work in Bay Jimmy and Bay Baptiste.
Shortly thereafter, Nungesser issued a statement of thanks to President Barack Obama for taking action to allow the vacuum barges to go back to work.
“I want to thank [the president] for using a common sense approach and helping save our wetlands and our way of life,” Nungesser said. “It’s a shame that the agency in charge continues to stand in the way of getting our job accomplished.”
At a press conference June 17, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander for the oil spill response, reiterated that safety concerns motivated the Coast Guard to order the barges back to dock.
“There were some issues about the safety and stability of those barges,” Allen said, speaking from Myrtle Grove Marina. “We don’t want to have an accident and hurt somebody during this response. We were looking to make sure they were safely being used.”
Allen said he would apply the same safety criteria to any cleanup tool.
“We’re going to run into new technologies,” he said. “We want people to be innovative. We want them to try new things. We just need to make sure it’s safe.”
Then, when asked to respond to some leaders’ frustration over what they see as a slow and disorganized response to the oil spill thus far, Allen said he believes the overarching goal should be “unity of effort.”
“This is unlike anything we’ve had to manage before,” Allen said. “What we’re trying to create is unity of effort. Now there are going to be differences of opinion and different viewpoints. If we can’t sit down and talk about this and come up with a way forward to manage this correctly, then [none] of us, whoever is involved, is serving the public very well.”
Oil containment update
Allen began the June 17 press conference with an update of the Coast Guard and BP’s efforts to contain the oil leaking from the damaged well that rests nearly a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Yesterday was our best day yet,” Allen said. “We were able to produce about 18,000 barrels of oil between the Discoverer Enterprise and the Q4000.”
The Q4000 is the device now being used to burn both natural gas and oil leaking from the well. Allen said the Coast Guard hopes to increase the oil burned per day to 5,000 to 10,000 barrels and the oil siphoned to the drill ship on the surface to 18,000 barrels.
By June, Allen said another ship should be in place to pump oil directly from the blowout preventer.
“By the end of June, we hope to be up to 53,000 barrels per day production,” he said.
At that point, the Coast Guard could consider replacing the entire damaged riser, Allen said. With that in place, and with new rough-water vessels and equipment in place, Allen said production could be between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels per day. The new equipment will also minimize any production interruption due to a hurricane.
“But in the long run, the final solution is the relief well,” he said. “The original timeline was for the second week in August. They’re slightly ahead of schedule. But as we know, with timelines you should always under promise and over deliver, so we’re not backing off the date in early August.”